By Lindsey Stevenson — Sunny St. George did not live up to its reputation on March 12, 2021. The first race of the season for me, and for many others, was thwarted by Mother Nature.
The True Grit Epic MTB 50 and 100-mile course is 13 years old, but the gravel race made its debut just two years ago. The inaugural True Grit Gravel was in 2019, but I was pregnant so I watched from afar as my friends and teammates participated in this incredible event. The following year, I was still lacking in endurance, and I watched from the sidelines again as my husband jumped into the gravel scene.
I was finally ready to tackle True Grit Gravel this year as my first race for the Abus Pro Gravel team. Two weeks before the race I drove down to Santa Clara to do some reconnaissance of the course with a few friends. We rode the original course that is comprised of mixed terrain, with pavement, single track MTB trails, and gorgeous rolling gravel roads surrounded by Joshua trees. Our recon ride could not have been more perfect. We lucked out with blue skies, sunshine and temperatures that hovered around the mid-50s. The course suited my strengths on the bike, with nothing too technical and plenty of climbing at 8000 vertical feet of elevation gain throughout the course. There were some chunky sections of gravel, but overall the course conditions were pristine. I felt more eager to race than ever now that I knew the course. Unfortunately, I was in no way prepared for the curve ball that Mother Nature threw at us on race day.
As race day approached it looked more and more likely that a storm would roll in and dump snow on us all weekend. But it was St. George…it never snows in St. George! It was cold and rainy during the True Grit Epic weekend in 2020, and I thought there was no way that bad weather would happen on the same weekend two years in a row, but indeed it did. Riders with whom I have spoken, who raced in 2019 and 2020, said that it was much rainier, but about 15 degrees warmer during the race last year. This year was absolutely frigid, and we got caught in a blizzard instead of a rainstorm.
I was apprehensive as I approached the start line, but still giddy at the idea of racing since it was so sparse last year. It was 38 degrees and the rain had turned to light snow. I kept thinking and hoping that maybe the race would have a delayed start time, or that the course would be shortened, or that Mother Nature would shape up for us, but none of those things happened. I was in awe at the number of cyclists that I saw all bundled up and ready to go on their bikes, along with the many creative ways to stay dry/warm. Apparently, peer pressure is real, because I knew that I would be heading to the start line as well, and I had every intention of finishing this race, with high hopes of finishing on the podium in a field of some strong women.
With 180 people registered for the race, there were just about 100 that showed up to the starting line, and only 23 who completed the race. Unfortunately, I was not one of them, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up to the start.
I lined up and looked for my friends, teammates and husband. Just before the gun went off my husband came up next to me and said, “I’m not doing this. I’ll drive out to the feed zone and see you there.” He kissed me on the cheek then rode back to the car. At this point I questioned whether or not this was a good idea. But I was already dressed and ready to go. I was still committed, though beginning to waver.
The gun went off. Finally! We were moving and the race was on. The race starts with a 7-mile stretch of pavement, and with all of the water splashing up from the riders in front of me I was drenched within the first mile of riding. I was okay. I wasn’t cold, and I felt fine. The visibility wasn’t great, but with a neutral start I just stayed steady and fixated on a high-vis green helmet in front of me and kept rolling. I stayed toward the front, marking the two women that I thought would be my fiercest competitors – Shayna Powless and Charlotte Backus from Team TWENTY24 Pro Cycling.
Once we hit the dirt, or rather mud, it was chaos. There was a surge from the front of the pack that I was able to follow, but then a second surge shortly after that blew up the field. I could still see Shayna up ahead and I knew I was in second, but at this point, I was just trying to stay on my bike. I saw a few guys slide out and go down in the mud, and after fishtailing a bit I backed off just to stay upright.
I was relieved to start climbing, because it strung out the field, and I was working hard enough to stay warm. As I made my way up the first part of the 1-hour Gigabit (as known on Strava) climb, I saw several riders, including the likes of Tinker Juarez and TJ Eisenhart riding in the opposite direction, as they had decided the conditions were too treacherous and they were calling it a day. We climbed up to just over 6000 feet of elevation, and the gravel roads were covered in snow. Up to this point, I was still focused on eating and drinking to make sure that I was getting enough calories in to get to the finish. The descent is where it literally went all downhill for me.
Temperatures had dropped from 38 degrees at the start to 24 degrees according to my bike computer, and there was no sign of the snow letting up. I began to feel water seeping through my gloves, and my feet had been soaked through 2 layers of shoe covers and my wool socks since the paved start. My hands were throbbing, but I knew that I just had to get to mile 32, where I would get a new pair of warm, dry gloves, and then I would be fine, or at least so I thought. There was one more uphill pitch before the long descent to the highway. I was less than 10 miles from the feed zone.
With every passing mile, my hands ached more and more. I finally had to stop to try to get some blood flowing through them. This is where I made my first terrible decision. I had HotHands in my gloves that had been soaked and they were no longer doing their job. I thought that if I could get them out maybe I’d be able to grip my handlebars better. I took my gloves off, wrung them out and got rid of the handwarmers, but my hands were too cold and my gloves were too wet to get them back on.
I stuffed my gloves in my jacket and began riding with bare hands. I thought for sure that I would have permanent nerve damage on my fingertips. I couldn’t hold onto the bars anymore, and it was at this point that I was really questioning my life choices. I kept stopping to try to warm up my hands, and to check for cell service, but I kept striking out. I had a friend catch me while I was stopped, and she asked if I was okay. It’s a little fuzzy now, but I think I just said, “Please go get Ben!” Was I in a bike race or was I on a battlefield trying to survive? “This is my hobby, right? Like, I’m choosing to do this, and I do this for fun, right?” Also, “I’m a Mom, and I have a small human to raise. What on earth am I doing out here?” These were some of the more coherent thoughts that were going through my head at this time.
At this point I knew that I would not be finishing the race, but I did not know how I was going to make it 4 more miles to get to the car. Cue Andrew Judkins – my husband’s teammate and perhaps the most decent guy out there that day. He came flying by me, but recognized me standing in the middle of the road, looking a bit dazed, without gloves on in a snowstorm. He stopped to check on me and I didn’t know if I felt like crying or laughing when I saw him.
I was not thinking very clearly at this point, but I encouraged him to keep going because he was still smiling and looking pretty good on the bike. Thankfully, he did not keep going. He took his gloves off and put them on my hands, and then took my bike while I was shaking violently with the chills. He started walking with me and telling me random stories to keep me distracted from how miserable I was. Once I regained some composure, I was able to hop back on the bike again, and still, Drew stayed with me. A text message came through his head unit, which indicated that we had cell service. We stopped to call Drew’s wife and my husband to come get us, although I think Drew would’ve been fine to finish the race. We were 2 miles from the feed zone, but both Cari (Drew’s wife) and Ben (my husband) drove up. Hallelujah! I was saved.
I changed out of my sopping wet, muddy bike clothes and into some sweats and a hoodie while my husband loaded my bike that had been thrashed in the mud and snow. This is when Bri Hoopes rode up on us, still smiling, and still crushing it on the bike. I told my husband to offer her a ride, but of course, she declined and pressed on. Bri is incredible. She went on to finish the race as only 1 of 2 women that day. She is truly the grittiest one out there! Her brakes went out with 30 miles to go, so she had to unclip and slide her foot on the ground when she needed to slow down.
As my husband and I rolled back up to the feed zone, it looked like a war zone, but with bikes. There were riders all over, shivering and just trying to get warm. And there were some really great volunteers and rider support crew out there who were handing out beanies and hoodies to help warm up these poor souls. Melisa Rollins, who would be racing the MTB 50 the following day was out there offering up a seat in her van, and every bit of spare clothing she had to people that she didn’t even know.
Once I started gaining feeling back in my fingers and toes the disappointment began to set in. I had been so excited to race, and I love this course. I went through the stages of DNF grief – feeling good about my decision to drop-out, justifying my reasoning for dropping out, feeling disappointed in my decision to drop-out, then just bummed about the idea of not finishing. I was so impressed with all of the riders that showed up that day, and then shocked and amazed by those who finished. I did not have what it takes to finish the race in those conditions, but it was certainly an experience that I will always remember.
While this was certainly less than ideal conditions, race director Cimarron Chacon put on a great event, made some tough decisions that weekend, and made the most of it for everyone. Mother Nature got the best of me this time, but I’ll be back next year.
For more information on the True Grit, visit: https://gropromotions.com